Blog: Innovation Policy & Practice – The Public Sector as a customer of innovative services & goods

The Public Sector increasingly needs to access innovative and emerging products and services to successfully meet the growing demands on services. This potentially creates a huge potential market for innovative business, however, understanding requirements and accessing public sector contracts can be challenging, particularly for small businesses. 

On 6th July, 2021, the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands delivered an Innovation Policy and Practice event to investigate routes that are already being deployed and approaches the West Midlands could take to help public services adopt innovative procurement practices and for businesses to understand what is required of them, in order that they can access public sector market opportunities.

Oliver Kirsch – Technology Lead, Connected Places Catapult (Panel Chair)

Oliver Kirsch is the lead for the Challenging Procurement programme at Connected Places Catapult. He has significant experience working with public bodies to understand end user needs and converting these into innovation projects, in particular he has an interest in challenge-led procurement of innovation and facilitating underutilised public procurement mechanisms to create new markets opportunities for innovative products and services.

Oliver’s presentation explained the governments appetite for change as illustrated through the national procurement policy statement.

Kevin O’Malley – SBRI Lead, Innovate UK

Kevin is Innovation Lead and SBRI Lead in the Clean Growth and Infrastructure Directorate at Innovate UK. As part of this role, he is responsible for managing relationships with regional and local government with the aim of boosting procurement-led innovation.

Kevin joined Innovate UK in April 2018. Prior to coming to Innovate he was City Innovation Team Manager at Bristol City Council, leading the delivery of the Authorities award winning Smart City programme.

Kevin presented on the power of public sector procurement for new and more efficient solutions, stressing the need for culture change.

Barbara Mills – Programme Manager, CivTech

Barbara leads on delivery for the Scottish Government’s flagship innovation programme, CivTech, where she leads the team in developing and delivering public sector procurement led innovation challenges which tackle a wide range of topics from tree planting to public sector recruitment. Prior to joining the CivTech team in 2017, Barbara worked in a variety of roles including; on a consultancy basis looking at innovation policy for The French Atomic Energy Commission; and at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.

Barbara gave a 101 of the CivTech challenge-based approach.

Steve Harding – Birmingham City Council BETTER Project

Steve works as an expert on the Birmingham city council BETTER project and is an Advisor for BCUs new STEAM campus. He blogs on maker spaces and innovation with a Berlin based consultancy – Multiplicities.

Steve discussed the impact of international learning and the benefit of design thinking to enable a culture of intrapreneurship within local authority teams.

Katharine Fuller – Head of Innovation, Bruntwood Sci-Tech

Katharine Fuller is Head of Innovation at Bruntwood Sci-Tech looking after all the business growth activities of the Innovation Birmingham Campus.  Kath has worked at the Campus for 8 years and has managed the Serendip Challenge-led innovation work since its inception in 2017.

Katharine gave a run through of the regional deployment of a West Midlands based approach to innovative procurement called Digital Innovation in Public Services and case studies of similar approaches between Bruntwood Sci-Tech and corporate challenge holders.

Q: How has the need for rapid procurement and different processes during the covid pandemic influenced public sector attitudes and approaches, and how much do we think will sustain into the long term?

Kevin mentioned the impact SBRI has demonstrated as a rapid spin-up tool in solving problems that are extremely complex or unexpected. Innovate UK’s experience of using more creative, innovative tools, as well as bringing forward innovation around the pandemic was really positive.

Barbara advised that the whole circumstances of the pandemic drove a real shift from a procurement point of view. 

“Some of the things seen in the way of innovation and procurement were about supply chain management, for example, CivTech’s procurement teams were using technology to help identify the legitimacy of the sources that were bidding to supply PPE. Those tools had a massive impact, and from the point of view of procurement teams, it was those teams themselves seeing the opportunities for ways to approach things slightly differently whilst being able to respond quickly.”

“Most importantly, the mindset of the public sector as a customer. We saw seven years of digital transformation happen in seven weeks! What we’ve seen come off the back of that is a different mindset in the type of sponsors CivTech are seeing coming forward and their appetite to move quickly. The benefits seen from having to do that we are seeing continuing.”

Steve suggested that mindset might be the key thing.

“We’ve talked a lot about technology but a lot of it will be about culture, trust, and also skills. There is a good moment to seize and now is a very good time to start doing new things.”

Katharine added that from her vast experience supporting digital start-ups, some of the tools and devices used during lockdown are here to stay due to the productivity gains seen.

Q: Oliver asked the panel to dive deeper into the area of culture change and the ability of public bodies to experiment with new approaches.

Steve advised that it’s all about trust, culture and how we get things moving in a way that reduces risk of failure.

Kevin commented that local authorities are political organisations.

“No one want to get caught buying BETAMAX when everyone else is buying VHS!”

“Being a risk averse culture anyway does expose individuals if they are pioneering and risk taking and looking for new approaches and technologies. But if that’s not happening, then all local authorities are doing is managing decline. Budgets are changing, challenges are becoming more complex, so new approaches and services need to be introduced.”

“A way to undercut some of that risk, and risk aversion, is to collaborate between local authorities. If there are four or five authorities that recognise they have a shared challenge they could collaborate and whatever solution emerges will be interoperable, the costs will be shared, the risk will be shared, and it will be a more attractive proposition to businesses.”

Katharine advised that when Bruntwood Sci-Tech has worked with the NHS or public agencies they have never suggested that all procurement needs to become innovative. It makes perfect sense to have approved suppliers for certain purchases. 

“This is just one route to procurement for them which helps ringfence risk.” 

Barbara recommended that anyone looking to take a challenge-based approach to innovative procurement needs to choose their challenges carefully to gain buy-in from key decision makers. 

“CivTech started with challenges that were at the ‘nice to have’ end of the spectrum. They weren’t necessarily part of the core delivery of services and that helped to prove the process.”

Katharine: “We’re looking forward to starting our regional project ‘Digital Innovation in Public Services’, funded through the West Midlands Innovation Programme. We see this as the start of a journey we will take as a region.”

Steve: “Start with something doable to gain trust and start measuring impact now.”

Kevin: “One word… collaborate! Collaboration is the fuel for this type of work. Collaboration within local authorities. Collaboration between local authorities. Most importantly, collaboration between businesses and the public sector, that’s where the best outcomes will be driven for everyone’s benefit.”

Barbara: “Start with the problem and not the solution!”

We have seen that the economic argument for innovative procurement grows businesses and creates jobs. We should all be working together to gather and understand the benefits and impact. Our regional approach ‘Digital Innovation in Public Services’ launches later in summer 2021 and we look forward to releasing the challenges to the regional business base then. In the meantime take a look at our call to action below…

Our next Innovation Policy and Practice event will be in September. More details on that to follow once confirmed. In the meantime, You can now access the follow up blog and access the session content here.